Memories of an Eight Year Old in Turkey

By John Griffiths

© 2003-2011 by Author

In July of 1956 my family arrived at what, at the time, was known as the Adana Air Force Base in Turkey. There were six of us: my father, Lieutenant Colonel Vincent Griffiths, my mother Rachael, my older brother Vince, my two sisters Marta and Tanya and me. We had just landed in a US Air Force C-47, one of the "cargo first, passengers second" sort of C-47. Due to an unexplained shortage of seats on the landing, the crew strapped me to the cargo in the middle of the floor of the plane while everyone else had their canvas bucket seats, which folded down from the bulkhead. I thought it was pretty cool!

Upon our arrival on the base, we went almost immediately to the snack shack which sat in a barren lot, that on weekend nights served as the outdoor theater. Everyone would bring a chair or sit on the ground. Vince and I, being the only kids actually living on the base old enough to go to the movies, were allowed to sit in the projection box.

On this occasion, we were sitting as a family when Dad was approached by the Officer of the Day. There was a problem at the front gate which needed immediate attention and even though we had only just arrived, Dad was the senior officer available so he got the call. I asked if I could ride along and Dad agreed as he must have thought it was going to be a trip that would be educational to me.

The incident turned out that an enlisted man had returned to the base intoxicated, poured beer on the head of the statue of Atatürk and then turned the statue around on its base. Turkish guards had him in custody with guns drawn when we arrived. Dad's Sergeant led the way with his own gun drawn and there was a short stand-off. Dad was able to convince the guards with the help of an interpreter that the man was in deep trouble and that he would dealt with harshly. They released him, and within minutes he was on the flightline headed out, never to return to Adana AFB.

I met this man again when I was in my mid twenties and he told me how grateful he was to Dad for saving his life.

Our home, over the next several months was to be a silver 10-by-50-foot trailer, number 1A. There were about eight silver trailers for the U2 pilots and officers, and a spare - #1B - that was used as a VIP trailer and extra bedroom for my brother when he was not in Wiesbaden attending the Armed Forces High School.

Across the street was an empty field that eventually became the commissary, and the Base Exchange at the time was said to only carry carry cigarettes and dog food. The headquarters building was the first permanent structure, and the Bachelor Officers Quarters followed shortly after. Then came the Officers' Club, commissary, gym, theater, bowling alley and a new snack bar. My Dad made a trip to an agriculture school and bought citrus trees which were planted around the Headquarters, Officers Club and Bachelor Officers' Quarters.

Colonel Thomas, the Base Commander, and his family lived off base, so we were the only family on base at that time. Our neighbors in the trailers were the U2 pilots, and of them I remember Francis Gary Powers and E.K. Jones. I remember Jones brought an esek (burro) back to the base and every morning it would bay something that sounded like EEEJay!, so they named him after Jones.

On another occasion EK set up a can on a nail so that I could shoot a pellet gun at it for practice and I shot one pellet through the wall of Powers' trailer. He was not happy about it at all. It had landed upon his kitchen table!

Adana AFB was separated from the Turkish side by a chain threaded through a two inch eye that had been welded on the top of a two-foot tall pipe. It ran from one side to the other and anyone, even an eight year old, could step over it. I guess it was just a reminder. It seemed as though the Americans ignored it, but the Turks stayed on their side.

My mother was a great cook and she spent a lot of time cooking pies for the cia guys. In return, she was allowed to use the Laundry, normally used to wash flight suits, behind the top secret fence at Detachment 10-10. Det. 10-10 was probably the only square inch of what. by then, had become İncirlik Air Force Base, that I had not examined.

In November, 1956, Colonel Ed Perry, who was actually the CIA officer in charge, was talking to my Mother while she was hanging clothes and pointed out a U2 taking off. This in itself was not unusual, though Perry went on to tell Mom that this one was headed for the first official overflight and used the words, "there goes our first baby." It was piloted by Francis Gary Powers and it still amazes me that adults thought a nine year old kid wouldn't understand!

Some of the hobbies taken up by the pilots and other troops were the making of tethered and un-tethered gas-powered model airplanes. One such flight ended in a crash against the water tower. Another activity was running around on their Vespa scooters, and they often took me for rides out to Mersin and the Castle by the Sea.

I went out on my own all over Adana in the buggies and never, ever felt threatened. The Turks took me to the bazaars and to the movies! I saw "Giant" starring James Dean, in a Turkish movie house, in English with Turkish subtitles. On occasion I would be asked if I had American cigarettes, so I started "borrowing" them from Dad and using them as barter. Two Camels would go a long way.

I saw the inside of the Adana Prison! My Father was called on, many times, to go down there and get guys out, so he made a habit of stopping by on a regular basis and bringing the guards gifts of cigarettes, liquor and candy. They started looking forward to his visits and always remembered his generosity when it came time to bail somebody out. Dad called it "preventative maintenance" and took me along on a couple visits as another history lesson. The guards seemed to get a kick out of it!

One trip where Dad's lessons for me backfired. We still lived on base and as I was coming out of the theatre, a Turkish pilot hit the deck in a T-33. I ran home to tell Dad and he was already getting into his staff car. The theater was literally across the street from the runway and no more than several hundred yards away, at most. I did not need to tell him there had been a crash as he had heard it. He just hollered for me to get in and away we went, out onto the end of the runway and toward the burning fuselage. Parts of the T-33 were strewn all down the runway: a landing gear, a full wing, part of the other wing. The firemen were just pulling out what was left of the pilot's torso from the wreckage when we pulled up. They laid the body down and several Turks began to pound on the body. Dad explained later that there was a belief that they could beat the life back into the victim.

My Father was silent all the way back to the trailer, and when we got there he told me how sorry he was that he had taken me. Personally, I thought it made me more grown-up, but I was sad too.

While I don't remember the reason, we eventually moved into town. By now there were several families at İncirlik and we even had a school. At first it was a quonset hut with eight kids in eight grades! Eventually a permanent structure was built for the increasing number of children arriving in Turkey.

Our house was near Atatürk Park in downtown Adana. From the base, you had to cross the old Roman bridge and drive by the Crystal Palace to get there. It was a grand building with two identical apartments with French doors all down two sides of the house.

There were virtually no civilian cars in downtown Adana other than our 1956 Chevy station wagon with its Texas license plates. When we got to the bridge, as many as 20 people would climb aboard or hang onto the back yelling "Tex-ass, Tex ass, John Wayne, American cowboy!" It became a daily routine.

One night, we received a call on our house telephone. My mother answered and could not understand the Turkish man on the other end of the line. She gave me the phone as I had the best grasp of the language and I was able to determine the man was named John and that he knew Dad by name and that something terrible was happening at his house. His kids were hurt.

Dad and I raced over the few blocks to the mansion on the other side of Atatürk Park to find that this man's children had been poisoned by their houseman! Dad had already called for an ambulance but decided to put the kids in the back of the Chevy and I would ride with the ambulance to the base hospital. Both girls stomachs were pumped, and the kids were fine.

The man turned out to be the brother of the President of Turkey, Mahmut Celal Bayar, which is how he was able to get our home number. He said that anything that was within his power was ours, just to ask. Dad, of course, told him "no," that he was just glad to be able to help, and that we were grateful to be guests of their country. (I asked for a horse. Everyone laughed.) But a few weeks later John showed up at our flat, while we were gone, with a trailer and two Arabian horses! Our housekeeper convinced him we had no place to keep horses, so they gave me access to their swimming pool! I am sure it was the only pool in Adana.

Some time later, my Mother was standing by our car with the door open, talking to another woman, when a young boy stole up behind her and grabbed her purse off the seat of the car. Mom threw off her shoes and chased the youngster and got him by the neck of his jacket. He managed to shake the jacket off (mom kept it). A few days later the purse showed up in a field missing only her ration card, a valuable item in 1957 Turkey.

The police took a special interest in finding this young man and they did it in short order. Because of the close relationship Dad had forged with the police in the past, they determined that as a sign of respect they should execute the boy! My Father was, of course, completely against this and it took weeks to convince the Turkish police otherwise...but not before the young man's family quite literally moved onto our front porch. The entire family, with cooking utensils, bed and covers, stayed there pleading with our family every time we entered or left. The police did finally relent, and the boy was sentenced to a lesser charge. His family moved back home.

My brother, Vince, had been spending a lot of time in Wiesbaden, Germany, but whenever he came home or returned to school, he would have to be "smuggled" in a US cargo plane with the CIA guys, because he had no passport of his own. In those days it was completely normal for a mother and all of her children to travel on one passport.

In September, 1958, my father was transferred back to the states. He stayed in the Air Force until 1968 when he retired at Castle Air Force Base, Merced, California.

Bachelor Officers Quarters, second permanent structure!

Mom's passport with kids (me in back).

School quonset. 8 kids, 8 grades.

Our houseboy, Mohammad and our house near Ataturk Park behind him.

Downtown Adana with friend of mine at left near buggy.

St. Peter's Grotto in Antioch, altar inside cave.

Front of St. Peter's Grotto, built over cave by crusaders.

Adana Prison.

U.S.soldier on left, Turkish soldier on right.


Base Headquarters - first permanent building. My dad planted citrus trees around the building and the base.